Here’s an amusing news item that’s got me a little steamed. Killjoys in Los Angeles County have passed a rule against play. Maybe you’ve heard of it. A 37-page ordinance recently promulgated prohibits any person “upon or over any beach” between Memorial Day and Labor Day “to cast, toss, throw, kick, or roll” any object other than a beach ball or volleyball. If the code enforcement officer catches you violating the law you may be liable to a $100 fine that graduates to $500 for repeat offenses. Furthermore, the order also prohibits digging a hole deeper than 18 inches “except where permission is granted for film and TV production services only”—Hollywood, after all, lies only about ten miles inland. Try to unpack this unhelpful explanation that the spokesperson for the Department of Beaches and Harbors offered: “The intent was not to preclude football or Frisbee tossing,” she explained. “We wanted to allow ball playing while providing reasonable safety measures.” I began to wonder if I were reading one of those satirical items from The Onion that somehow got loose. Understandably, Angelinos who responded in the lively comment section of the Los Angeles Times were having nothing of this. Bill, one of many incredulous readers, demanded, “So, I won’t be able to throw a football, Nerf or otherwise, with my kids at the beach this summer? Won’t be able to kick a soccer ball around? No Frisbee at the beach? Was this ordinance written by someone who’s never been to a beach?” Polly, who allowed that she’s been going to the beach for almost every day of her 82 years, pointedly wanted to know, “Who started this? These games are part of what the beach is about!” Should Los Angeles County prohibit kite flying? Should they ban surf boards and boogie boards? Polly wondered, “Can we still take a swim?” Then what about the hazards in the ocean itself? “Let’s get rid of the dolphins and the whales—they might pose some kind of danger!” And goodbye to beach forts and sculptures, too, come to think of it. Beth pointed out that beach umbrellas that take flight on a windy day are “sooooooooooo much worse. What’s the worst that’s ever happened from a football or a Frisbee?” Shannon wrote, “OMG! This is completely ludicrous. I guess we’re supposed to go to the beach and lie down with our hands folded. This is why we’re all getting fat!” To gauge the depth of feeling here, it pays to remember the premium that Californians place on that beach-ready bod. Now I understand that beach side municipalities need to maintain order. Cops need to keep the celebrating throng of Spring-breakers cool in Cancun, South Beach, and Cabo San Lucas. Lifeguards, everywhere and every minute, need to keep an eye not just on swimmers out of their depth, but on shore side sunbathers with a snootful. At 15, my own father served as a beach captain on Chicago’s North Shore. When he wasn’t entertaining the littlest, unsupervised non-swimmers with funny stories, nursery rhymes, magic tricks, and sing-alongs to keep them out of the drink he was pulling spluttering, doggie paddlers out of Lake Michigan surf, or breaking up drunken fights on land.
I expect that few but the strictest libertarians would really hope for the return of beach policing to the era just post-Untouchables. But to draw out the glaring contrast between then and now a little further, let’s go back to the beaches in Los Angeles County where casting, tossing, throwing, kicking, or even rolling footballs and Frisbees now are acts deemed threatening to public order. Isn’t it amazing how cautious we’ve become? And isn’t it curious how play so often focuses public concern? And isn’t it amazing how we’ve lost confidence in democracy’s talent for self-regulation and harmony? For perspective, visit a playground these days and examine the climbing structures that rise only a few feet off the ground. Owing to a fear of liability lawsuits, this kind of equipment everywhere challenges only the smallest kids. It may well be the fear of litigation that also scares the Division of Beaches and Harbors to regulate football and Frisbee. But Duke, another who had read of the prohibition and commented in The Los Angeles Times, saw the county beach ordinance as yet more evidence of the creeping influence of a “nanny state” bent on protecting us from all risk. Even more darkly, one more dismayed reader, Nick, concluded, “We are no longer a free people.” You know what? Bill and Polly, Beth and Shannon, and Duke and Nick have a point.